By: Karlee Holzbach
Once you understand the simple blend of techniques, baseball is a fairly simple game. There are nine fielding positions. Each position contains individual jobs that work together to lead the team to victory, some more than others. No other defensive position requires more physical and mental concentration than a catcher. Catchers are the playmakers of the field. They control the game. The responsibilities of a catcher throughout the course of the game are widely underestimated by the common baseball fan. Game by game, kneeling, diving, and blocking for nine innings while dealing with particular pitchers and unsettled umpires can wear a player down. More than often the reality of catching is more demanding than a straightforward position. In order for catchers to keep the game under control, they must be able to understand and accommodate to their pitchers and dismantle the batter by breaking down his every move. In May 2015, ESPN announced A. J. Ellis, LA Dodgers Catcher, as the best pitch-caller in baseball. This 34-year-old, 6’2, 230 pound, righty from Lexington, Kentucky has been with the Dodgers since 2008. Between 2012-2014, Ellis saved 38 runs, 22 of them being in 2013 alone. Thus, his title seems suitable.
Friday, May 19, 2015 the LA Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals met for the first of three game series. During the third, Jhonny Peralta shot a two-out double to lead off the rally. Just like a replay, Randall Gruichuk crushes his own double scoring Perlata making that a two run lead for the Cardinals, no thanks to Dodgers left fielder Alex Guerrero’s tracking ability. Dodgers’ starter Mike Bolsinger had a rocky start giving up these two runs on five hits. That is until Ellis changed his plan of attack. Ellis changed his perspective when he noticed the St. Louis Cardinal hitters dipping on the outside corner for that future breaking ball. What does Ellis do? He jams the hell out of them. “It’s about manipulating a hitter’s body sometimes based on how they’re reacting to certain pitches,” Ellis said. In the last three innings, his slight change from outside to inside finished with only two hits scoring no runs. Noticing, understanding, and changing the dynamics of the pitching sequence are what have made Ellis such a successful pitch caller.
Catchers should be studying the offense before they step in the box. For ten years I caught competitive fast-pitch softball. I was extremely anal when it came to analyzing the hitter’s swing. The hitting circle is where the batter finds his timing. A catcher should be able to pick out even the smallest flaws or warning signs while analyzing warm-ups. My main focus was on the swing mechanics. Does he dip his shoulder? Extend his hands? Quick hands? Asking these questions had me adjusting my calling strategy for every batter. Once the hitter is in the box, even more adjusting changes in a catchers mind. Is the batter lefty or righty? Crowding the plate or allowing space? These can be big alterations when it comes to pitch calling. Knowledge of powerful hitters allows pitchers and catchers to work on their “pretty” pitches that will toss batters out of their cleats. Ellis and Clayton Kershaw developed chemistry by mixing and testing sequences together until they bonded their minds as one.
Ellis caught Kershaw for the first time in 2007. Kershaw was a 19-year-old rookie who was pulled up in August to help the Dodgers in the playoffs. Ellis’ new job was to mentor Kershaw and develop him into a LA weapon. Ellis opens up his initial feel for Kershaw in The Player’s Tribune:
“I was an older guy for that level, already 26. I think that’s what my role was in the Dodgers organization at the time: helping pitchers develop. Coaches trusted the work I did. Clayton didn’t have a slider yet, and they wanted him to develop a changeup, too. I remember he was warming up before his first start, working on that changeup. It was a very inconsistent pitch for him, and he was having trouble throwing it, missing high and away.”
Sometimes when two different characters mindsets differ it’s difficult to create trust in the other individual. Baseball is a mental battle. A catcher must be demanding, but also compassionate. A leader, but also a supporter. Catchers are the team’s director, strategist, shrink, and friend. Ellis knew he and Kershaw’s natures would never match up 100%. Although the Ellis technically leads the team, Kershaw is the one who manipulates it.
“Honestly, one of the toughest things about catching an ace is the pressure you feel not to screw it up. You know how great they are and want to stay out of their way, but at the same time make sure their rhythm and timing stays the same. That there’s always comfort and trust. But Clayton and Zack are very different guys, so the process of working with each is different.”
A catcher should know their pitchers strengths, weaknesses, moods, attitudes, what they ate for lunch, etc. Ellis figured out what kind of pitcher Kershaw was immediately. Ellis simply explains, “On game day, you just let him be.” Pitchers have their favorable and disliked positions when it comes to certain situations. For instance, a pitcher generally has a go-to pitch when in doubt of a pitching call. As a catcher, they should know what pitch it is. During warm-ups, I would analyze which pitches are moving and which are duds then report back to my coaches with my results. After catching Kershaw so many times, Ellis explains that he doesn’t even pay attention to his warm-ups anymore.
“Clayton needs that guy to step in the batter’s box and an umpire to say “play ball.” Then his competitive juice just takes him to another level. I’m always kidding him, “That’s why you stink in spring training every year.” Those games don’t matter. When Clayton pitches with an expiration date — two innings, 75 pitches, or whatever — it’s not good for him. He needs to pitch to win the game.”
Not all pitches are always going to work as planned. Knowing your pitcher creates the trust and bonds the pitching groove. In other words, happy pitchers means happy pitches. Hence, sometimes this requires a catcher to just shut up and listen. Kershaw had his own pitch preferences and was not shy about expressing them to Ellis.
“Before each of Clayton’s starts, he and I, with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, sit down together two hours before the game. Clayton dictates that entire meeting, running through the starting lineup in detail. “Here’s what I want to do … ” Hitter after hitter. “Usually he’s spot-on with his approach and it matches with my scouting and game plan,” states Ellis. “Occasionally, I’ll throw in my two cents, but I’d better make damn sure my two cents fits with what he wants to do.” Otherwise Kershaw will snap. “I’m not doing that. That makes no sense.”
Just like all problems in life, there is always a situation. New situations arise and change with every pitch. The game is unpredictable. Nine innings of ups and downs, injuries, errors, and breakdowns can take a toll on a team. Through these hardships arises the need of a leader. Though, Ellis notes that job of an MLB catcher isn’t easy.
“The grind of the 162-game season. Most front-line guys play between 115 and 140 games and it’s just the grueling grind of flying cross-country, having your body ready to catch day in and day out. The physical demands, and the mental demands – calling the right pitches, being a field general – all that combines into a guy who needs a long week at the beach at the end of the season.”
Catchers are the eyes, ears, and mouth of the game. The relationships between a catcher and his pitcher solidify the trust in each call that is made. Whether if they agree or not, they don’t have much time to argue. Ellis and Kershaw’s relationship and their level of trust developed through two different minds and created the sacred pitcher-catcher bond. From the minors to the professional league, these two opposites rose to higher heights together on and off the field. Ellis confesses that Kershaw is one of the best connections he has ever had with another player or individual.
“We built up that understanding and friendship, even beyond how we played together on the field. He tries to act older than his age, and I try to act a lot younger than mine, so we meet in the middle with a chemistry that comes from being friends first.”
The deciding factors for catchers calling pitches are generally universal with the occasional disagreement. Though, the bond between the pitcher and the knowledge of the opponent are key to calling a good game, and hopefully, a perfect game.
On June 19, 2014, Kershaw and Ellis did the unthinkable. Kershaw threw what is known in the Los Angeles Times as “the greatest pitching performance in baseball history,” ending the game with 15 strikeouts and not one batter walked. His no-hitter joined into the 283 no-hitters in baseball history. Averaging four pitches per batter, LA Times exclaims he went to a three-ball count with only one batter all night and only 11 others experienced two-ball counts. Kershaw’s movement from his slider and curveball ultimately rocked the Rockies.
“That’s probably the best combination he’s had of his slider and curveball working on the same night,” said Ellis. “When you got those things going, nights like this are possible.”
A. J. Ellis is not the toughest catcher. He doesn’t gun out every stealing opponent. Not every pitch he calls goes his way. Ellis is successful because he understands he’s not the overall greatest catcher in baseball history. However, he makes up for it with his phenomenal ability to call games. Still, he explains that he is determined to take on his goals with Kershaw for future opportunities.
“I don’t need to be titled the starting catcher,” he said. “I want to be the World Series champion catcher.”